Organization Profile: the International Commission on Radiological Protection

By Dr. Donald A. Cool, Main Commission Member and Chair of Committee 4, ICRP

Since 1928, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) has provided independent recommendations that have formed radiological protection policy, regulations, guidelines, and practice globally. In recent decades, these recommendations have been updated roughly every 20 years, taking into account emerging issues, technology, and other factors. Over time, these changes reflect the needs of society and the evolution of topics such as protecting the environment.

Today, ICRP operates as an international charity (UK registered Charity 1166304), guided by a mission to protect people, animals and plants, and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation. Our work is supported by the voluntary contributions from people and organisations around the world who believe in our vision and respect the independent nature in which ICRP conducts business. With approximately 300 volunteer experts from more than 40 countries, the work is free of undue influence, guided by a code of ethics and strategic priorities, and is truly for the public benefit regardless of geographical location or economic standing. Our experts act as individuals, and do not represent their home organisation, industry, or government.

Although ICRP has been around for over 90 years, our identity as a charity is a more recent development. Many people and organisations around the world either do not know that we are a charity, or do not understand the key role our work plays. Our work touches so many aspects of daily life, from medical and veterinary care, industrial manufacturing and testing to safe energy and environmental protection. Because of this, charitable contributions are difficult to come by, regardless of how many global citizens are positively impacted by these dedicated doctors and scientists. People and organisations are encouraged to go to and donate.

ICRP is organised with a Main Commission, Scientific Secretariat, and four standing Committees addressing effects, dosimetry, medicine, and other applications. Committee 4 on Application of the Commission Recommendations is the focus of efforts in areas outside of medicine and includes development of advice on emergency situations.

The most recent set of ICRP fundamental recommendations are in Publication 103, released in 2007. ICRP generally separates the possibilities of exposure into three “exposure situations”, namely planned, existing, and emergency exposure situations. A great deal of effort has been given in recent years to the issues of dealing with existing exposures, which may be naturally occurring radiation, or radiological conditions that remain after a nuclear or radiological event. In the context of radiological and nuclear threats, the discussions of emergency exposure situations, and the recovery from such events, is of greatest relevance. c

Publication 146, Radiological Protection of People and the Environment in the Event of a Large Nuclear Accident, provides the latest advice on radiological protection in an emergency and recovery from an accident. The report is focused on the events that could occur following a large nuclear power reactor event, taking lessons from the events at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Although written in this context, the guidance can be applied in other situations. The report outlines an approach using reference levels to guide a process of optimisation of protection to plan and implement protection for those responding to and impacted by an event. Optimisation refers to the process of looking at opportunities and alternatives for reducing exposure when it is reasonable to do so, taking into account all the social, economic, and environmental factors that are present.

In the context of an emergency, the concept of a dose limit is not applicable, because the situation is not under control and rapid actions are needed to regain control of the source and situation. But this does not mean that guidance is not available, or that efforts to provide protection stop. The objective of radiological protection is to mitigate radiological consequences for people, animals, and the environment while at the same time ensure sustainable living conditions for the affected people, suitable working conditions for responders, and maintain the quality of the environment.

Reference levels serve as the guidance for individual doses above which particular focus is likely justified to try and reduce the exposures. For example, a value of 100 mSv is recommended as the maximum value for responders in the emergency phase. It is recognized that exposures above this level may be necessary in order to regain control of the situation, prevent catastrophic conditions, and save lives. Within these boundaries, radiological protection is to be optimised. Depending on the circumstances, a reference level for a particular situation should be set at the lowest reasonable value in order to be of value in guiding decisions and improving protection.

To put these numbers into context, a millisievert (mSv) is the unit in which exposure radiation is measured. 1 mSv per year is about the average exposure of a person from background radiation coming from radioactive materials naturally occurring in the environment and cosmic radiation from space but excluding radon and contributions from man-made sources such as medical diagnosis and treatment. There can be considerable variations in our background exposure, depending on where we live, the types of construction materials, etc.

Once some degree of stability has been achieved in responding to an event, transitions can occur to more controlled operations, with a focus of reducing exposures over the course of time and interacting with stakeholders to answer their questions and support their personal and corporate efforts to improve their own circumstances. For individuals in the public, the recommendation is that the reference level be selected within the lower half of the band from 20 to 1 mSv for longer term recovery purposes. Efforts should continue to improve the situation through optimisation, with an emphasis on the stakeholder interactions to help understand what may be reasonable in different circumstances. In general, the objective is to progressively reduce exposures to levels towards the lower end of the reference level band, or below if possible.

Although ICRP has not specifically addressed defense and the military aspect of nuclear/radiological protection, its recommendations do provide a framework within which such activities can, and should, be considered and implemented.

ICRP began a decade-long journey to review and revise the fundamental recommendations for the next generation in 2018 with a preliminary discussion with several key organisations. We are now engaging in more global conversations than ever before to truly grasp the scope of what is necessary to protect people, animals, and the environment in 2030 and beyond. This includes taking the lessons learned from the implementation of Publication 103, changes and updates to science, and new topics that need to be addressed. This effort will include changes in advice that have been published since 2007, including Publication 146.

We are also considering if an update is appropriate for the advice published in 2005 on Protecting People Against Radiation Exposure in the Event of a Radiological Attack (Publication 96). This report was produced following the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and needs to be considered afresh as part of developing the next recommendations and in light of the great quantity of thinking in emergency response over the last 15 years.

To accomplish this work, ICRP has greatly increased our efforts to engage with stakeholders from members of the public, working professionals, industry, and government. We not only want to do a better job understanding the challenges facing us all, but also do a better job in explaining radiation and our recommendations. In 2018, we began a successful campaign to raise the necessary to funds to make our work free-to-access. Now, anyone can visit the publications page on our website ( and find over 95% of ICRP Publications at no charge.

All of these activities will take more time, financing, and commitment than ever before, but ICRP is ready for the challenge. As more people understand ICRP’s mission, the more people will believe in it, leading to the resources needed for the future. Those interested in the work of ICRP, including supporting our work, or have any questions, may reach out to us directly at [email protected]

Dr. Cool is a member of the Main Commission of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, and Chair of ICRP Committee 4 on Application of the Commission’s Recommendations. He received his B.S. degree in Biology from Houghton College. His Masters and Doctorate degrees are in Radiation Biology from the University of Rochester, School of Medicine and Dentistry. I addition to his work for ICRP, he is a Council Member of the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and was the Co-Chair of NCRP Council Committee 1 which produced NCRP Report 180, Management of Exposure to Ionizing Radiation: Radiation Protection Guidance for the United States. He has served on numerous panels and expert groups of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency. Dr. Cool is currently the Technical Executive for Radiation Safety with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Prior to joining EPRI, he served in Senior Executive and Senior Advisor positions in the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He is a Fellow of the Health Physics Society.